View of a classroom from the back, looking forward to the large blackboard on the front wall over the backs of many stationary wooden chairs placed very close together.

The Politics of Chairs: What Kind of Classroom Would You Build?

design, The Double-Edged Sword

By Olivia Burgess
The Double-Edged Sword

A chair is just a chair, right? Well, since you’re reading this blog you probably won’t be surprised that my STS answer is not necessarily – there’s a lot more to it than that. 

Dr. Zhu’s campus talk last month began with a fundamental concept in STS that I’d like to revisit: technologies are not neutral. That doesn’t mean, like some of my students first assume, that technology is simply either good or bad, like an angel or demon sitting on your shoulder. It means that technologies are expressions of things that we value as humans, such as safety, freedom, connection, privacy, and so on. 

A still from The Simpsons: Homer Simpson (middle-aged male cartoon character) with an angel version of himself on one shoulder and a devil version of himself on the other.
Technological non-neutrality is not this simple.

Let’s go back to chairs and specifically those you would find in an in-person college classroom. If you google images for “college classrooms,” you’ll find many pictures of traditional teacher- and technology-focused designs – the ones that probably pop into your own head when you think about a classroom. 

An image found searching Google for “picture of a college classroom” shows a traditional classroom arrangement.

But have you ever wondered why a classroom is the way it is, or if that’s the way it should be? That’s a question that intrigues scholars of built pedagogy, the study of the physical representation of educational philosophies. A fundamental principle of this field is that technologies are not neutral. A classroom is not just a space to learn, but a place that embodies beliefs, values, biases, and ideologies. It is, dare I say it, political in nature. For instance, the built environment establishes what bodies can move in space and how easily. A classroom that one student might easily navigate may feel drastically different for a student with a disability or injury.